Issue 12 • March 2014
For George Saunders
There was a tiger, a rabbit, a bear, a pig, a donkey, and a kangaroo mom and child—but this is about the tiger and rabbit, I had began, my voice cracking and crushing itself underneath the weight of her eyes. The tiger was very enthusiastic and it caused problems, his enthusiasm. One day, he ran over the rabbit in his garden and ruined all the vegetables. The rabbit was angry—she looked like she was about to interrupt so I sped up—so the rabbit called a meeting with the bear and the pig, and the bear fell asleep through much of the meeting but the rabbit decided they would take the tiger out into the woods and lose him maybe forever—was I tearing up? I could not let her see me tearing up, so I decided to go even faster—and so they did just that, but the process they themselves got lost and it was the tiger who ended up saving them, and saving especially the rabbit who had had a nightmarish time in the woods all alone. I paused; she looked glazed, like maybe she thought there was more. The thing about the story is, nothing really changed after all that and everyone still got annoyed at the tiger. He was not a hero. As hard as he worked, as useful as he was, he could never be more than what he was. In my head, a better, brighter, American-TV-version of me jazz-handed “The End!!” but the me I was stuck with just swallowed too hard and tumbled into a coughing fit.
They couldn’t get rid of the tiger, my grandmother said through clenched teeth. He would not die. That’s the whole point
I nodded. Yes, that too.
My grandmother looked, as she often did in those days: madly unamused. A terrible story. I don’t know why you’d tell me such a terrible story.
It didn’t hurt my feelings because I had been through it before with her. She had very high standards for stories, her own opaque and angled and more terrifying than anyone could imagine, certainly too striking for a young boy of my age back then. Well, it’s the story I learned in school today.
But I was the one who had it wrong. I didn’t ask what story you learned. I asked what you learned. American class and its terrible stories don’t count.
Even at that age I wanted her to know she was not always right: English. English class.
What difference was it to her; she ignored me, and got to the point of points, the reason why back then she’d make me tell the details of school and even English class so thoroughly: Do you see why it’s better here?
Here. For only a little while longer here would mean Iran. I decided, with the wild abandon of a man at cliff’s edge, to go for honest: No.
That was incorrect, of course. Again, with raised voice: Do you see why it’s better here?
Tiptoe, retreat, lie: Sure, yes.
Those were the only moments when I’d see her smile, that breaking of her face that at least looked like a dry and cracked smile, like it hurt to attempt. One time, her lip had bled when she smiled. This time the smile flickered on and off hesitantly, like a dying light bulb. When you really learn that, we’ll be ready to go.
But we were just weeks from moving to the USA. We have to go anyway, I argued.
We don’t have to do anything.
Then why are we going? I was younger than my years would indicate—a single digit soul in ill-fitting newish double digits—and so these decisions were never clear to me, even when an aura of desirability surrounded them. Just the year before, I had teared up at a friend’s house when he told me that at the end of a movie I had never seen, the young girl left a very magical green city with flying monkeys and talking animals and things like that and returned home to a dismal rural place named Kansas. But why? I asked. My friend shrugged. Why? Why? I kept asking. . .
Because we’ve lost it.
Our minds? Was I joking? I was likely not joking.
No. Our lives.
Will we find it? Or will it find us? This is how I know I was not joking. Back in those days, I felt suffocated by all the things that they complained we could never find again, in season after season of loss and more loss.
It’ll do something.
And that was that.
It stayed with me, this second-to-last memory of us before we came to this country. The first memory: years before that, the time she had taken a meat tenderizing mallet that had been sitting in the oven for an hour—the hour after I had said my first profanity, a term for dog waste—and placed it on my dry quivering tongue.
If it hadn’t been for her, my feelings about my new life would have been good. I had heard of all sorts of things about America: basketball courts in every yard, restaurants where you could eat endlessly for a one-time fee, child entertainers who made ten times what the president did.
But when it turned out Mother and Father were not coming and neither was my older brother Ali, and that it would be just my grandmother and I, I felt drenched in sudden worry.
This will not end well, I said to them all. It was a line I had heard in an Iranian movie about a woman who is a spy who falls in love with a man who is a clown; the spy woman had said it to the clown man, and she had been right.
When I said it, my parents—always somewhere else, always a bit distant—until they really were somewhere else, really were distant—just smiled brothily and pretended I was joking, I suppose.
And on that final early summer day, at the airport, my father—son of my grandmother—tried to console me with a final whisper, She’s old, yes, but on our side of the family everyone is practically invincible. She will be with you for a long time.
There are so many American stories for what we do, the most American stories of all. In American school, we learned about people who looked all sorts of ways, getting on ships and coming to American to “start over.” Men with buckles on their hats, men who ate potatoes, men who ate spaghetti, men who ate fortune cookies. Men who had nothing in common, but their coming here. What we had done made sense here, this is what I learned.
Though I was probably the only child who had a “guardian” instead of a parent. The teachers seemed so curious and so enchanted as if I was a mystery novel, and so I soon memorized a sentence true and yet twinkling: My grandmother and I have been sent by my parents who could not afford to leave their business behind, to start a new life. The teachers would sigh and sigh. Why your grandmother, of all people? they would sometimes go on to wonder. I could never get that to sound too romantic: My parents thought my grandmother, so old, could use good doctors here, while I could use the good schools. Still: sighs and sighs. They want me to take care of her, as she takes care of me, my guardian my grandmother. Sighs, sighs, sighs.
I didn’t tell them there was not too much care on either end.
Who needed to know that, who could face that reality? Forgive me, You-who-still-may-or-may-not loom, I never loved you the way American kids did; I never loved my grandmother the way Iranian kids did. I called her the same thing—“Grandmother” which in Farsi is “Madarbozorg” and which literally translates to “Mother the Big”—but she did not feel like the grandmother people talked about when talking about grandmothers.
One time she told me to watch out for ugly people because their ugliness came from being ugly inside. I quickly dropped my eyes lest she think I was mocking her by staring—of course, she was not beautiful. She was indeed The Big, a very overweight woman. I equated her body with a very big brown paper bag, her skin loose and yet dry. She wore dark shapeless velvet caftans that made her look even more impossibly big. And she was also the only balding woman I had ever seen, though I was reminded of the condition only when her headscarf slipped off during those long naps on the couch. The big brown spotted head with its light dusting of white hair was like a dirty harvest moon before a storm, its awful glory something more terrible than a simple ugly, I suppose.
Madarbozorg had decided long before we arrived that America was no good, that we had to be there because there was no other choice and that, before I’d hit adulthood, we’d be back to Iran. Nevermind what Tehran had turned into. Overnight new cries scored the city: prayers and curses, men on rooftops shrieking or singing, hard to tell which; my mother and female cousins and all my schoolmate girls draped in black like they were wearing crow costumes. One time, we went to our favorite shopping center and there suddenly was no shopping center, but a government building. Another time I went to see my friend on Prosperity Street and it had turned into Allah’s Promise Drive. Another time my parents had tried to take me to the playground by the house, but it was filled with the crow women and double the number of men all screaming and shouting with fists in the air, while police with large guns braided through the masses like unphased snakes.
How could America be worse? I had asked her over and over, but she’d shake her head and tell me I’d see.
How is this worse? I asked over and over in our first month there, but still she’d insist I’d see.
For one thing, she hated our apartment in America, in a part of town that was supposed to be okay but evidently was not good enough for her. A distant relative of ours, a man named Moe, had put a well-worn plaid couch in the living room with two simple white plastic chairs on either side. Two identical mattresses, lying bare on the ground like shameless dead bodies, were the only items in the other room—the room we were to share.
(The room we were to share. The room we were to share. The room we were to share. I begged my body and mind to stay strong, as something in me knew this was just the beginning, that her premonition of all the worse-ness coming was likely right.)
Moe came ever few days with armfuls of supplies: toilet paper, sheets, cleaning supplies, bread and tea. He was a single man, about as old as my father, but had no interest in taking over, he often wanted me to know.
We got to teach you to drive, so you can start helping Madarbozorg yourself, he’d say.
Are twelve-year-olds allowed to drive here? I’d ask.
He would pound my back and say, Everything is possible here.
Other times, Moe would talk about how he was the happiest man in the world, but always without a smile. I have it all, he’d say, but it was hard to see what. He was very thin, with a pelt of mustache that took over most his pock-marked face. He drove a pick-up truck that was very old and rusted. He worked as a plumber, but he told me I should make sure to familiarize myself with basic household repairs, so I could start helping Madarbozorg myself. Americans find my expensive, he’d remind me often with a pride I found both inspiring and sad.
He did give me one bit of advice that really made me: Change your name. I asked him what was wrong with my name, why didn’t he like it, and he shook his head and said, Try to imagine an American pronouncing it. What a mess! I didn’t understand: But what is a mess? I wondered. Your name which equals you! he snapped and told me his name was Mohammed and he had shortened it to the American name Moe. It had jumpstarted great luck, turning him into the happiest man in the world—I have it all, he said, hugging the air.
I thought about it. What would be my American name? Moe had brought us a television (much smaller than the one we had in Iran), and he told me that it would be best English teacher in the world. I watched hours and hours. It was from a crime show that I got my name, the name of an actor I was sure was Middle Eastern at least: Michael Nouri. It had a nice sound and it was apparently a name Middle Easterners could pull off in this country.
By the time it was September and time to go to school, I knew myself as Michael and so would everyone else.
Moe approved. Michael Jackson! A lucky name! Everyone loves Michael Jackson! he said. I did not mention Nouri; instead I embraced my name even more.
The only person who did not know—and wouldn’t hear it anyway—was Madarbozorg.
Once a week, Moe came to our house for dinner. Madarbozorg was always cooking. She made elaborate complicated feasts out of the limited grocery lists she’d send off to Moe. But when Moe actually sat down to dinner, you could always see that he was tense, tenser than when he was with just me. Always, just after the initial silent moments of us three mismatched relatives chewing, Madarbozorg would begin her usual questioning,
What about my cousin Mansoor? Lovely girl, keeps a very clean house.
Moe would nod and grunt every time. They were always in Iran, so he didn’t have to worry about it.
Eventually, she’d get frustrated. You need a wife, she’d demand, It’s meaningless being all alone out here in a fake place like this.
Once in a while he’d defend himself with a simple, I have everything I need. And rarely would he finish his food.
Eat more, she’d always say and one time in a rare self-doubting moment, she added, You don’t like it?
It’s very good, he said, but I’m not used to Iranian food. I usually eat dinner out, McDonald’s or Pizza Hut, you know.
At that point I had only had Tehran pizza and only heard of McDonald’s. I started to doubt Moe’s happiest-man-in-the-world status less.
Mother the Big, I liked to call her more and more each day as I became more and more absorbed into the big body of the English language, had certain obsessions. In the first few months of us arriving she constantly spoke in warnings, warnings about two things mainly: American women and earthquakes. One or both would get me, she seemed to think, and it was my duty to keep myself safe from them.
But don’t they have earthquakes in Iran? I asked.
Yes, but our houses were strong there. Look at this cheap place. It wouldn’t survive a kitten chase on its roof.
She asked Moe to get helmets for us and he brought back basic bicycle helmets, which she inspected with pleased grunts. He didn’t ask any questions. I didn’t either, because I knew it was going to be bad whatever it was that was coming.
That night, she demanded we wear them to bed. She was convinced earthquakes would only come at night. And because we shared a room there was no way out. The first night I could not get five minutes of sleep, with my cheek uncomfortably wedged inside the round cage. I noticed Mother the Big was tossing and turning too. But by the second night she was asleep—I could hear her snores—while I tossed.
I complained after a few days and she snapped, Is it better to be dead or have some bad sleep? You haven’t suffered!
There was no way out.
Eventually I got used to bad sleep. But I thought of the other me in the parallel universe, sneaking it under the bed when she was deep in snores. That me would be defeated, of course; the story would not end well, said a spy to a clown, but where was the story that would end better?
What did it mean afterall to stand up to Mother the Big? How could I not once in a while dream of that, O Madarbozorg-please-forgive-me?
In Iran, I was said to possess the seeds of insolence—I remember my parents telling everyone this, as if the more people knew, the more they’d be safe from it. But in America, it rarely broke the surface, happening less and less as time went by. And for good reason: insolence meant being subject to behaviors. It mean roars and wails. It meant slaps. It meant claws. It meant your tongue carrying a burning hot tenderizer, while she sang, as if a nursery rhyme, You did it once, now you won’t do it twice.
It was not a good idea to disobey her.
So I endured the helmet. And I didn’t worry about her second obsession, American women, assuming that was for Moe, not the preteen-me to worry about, at least for a while.
But they start young here, she warned me. So don’t trust the little girls either. Or the lady-teachers—only do enough to get a good grade but don’t linger.
One time, a combination bored and annoyed, I asked her what she thought American women did exactly.
They will bring you and your family more bad luck than you can imagine.
In some ways, her description thrilled me. What a strange new set of monsters these women were. In other ways, it terrified me; I caught myself looking the other way, cutting conversation short, even eying the women of the television with superstitious caution. I worried about Moe when he was over watching sports, while Mother the Big cooked. When the cheerleaders came to do a dance, I told Moe it was better to cover the eyes.
They bring bad luck.
Moe shook his head; he knew where I got it from. Another time I again warned Moe, after I saw him chatting enthusiastically with a drugstore-cashier-American-woman, and he said, both too firmly and a bit strangely, You don’t need to worry about me and that problem.
There were secrets, myths and truths, rumor and history, all forbiddens that glittered for me, since what else did I have in my life but school and her? One time I was alone afterschool with Moe, while Mother the Big went to the doctor (Moe was both her ride and my babysitter, though it would be the last of those days, Moe declaring I was old enough to take care of myself soon afterward), Moe told me the biggest secret about her.
He told me Mother the Big’s first husband, whom she’d only been married to briefly, before all her children, was a man known as The Butcher. He was a war general who had reportedly ordered brutal massacres of entire villages, Moe said. He always killed women and children first and then hung dozens leaders of tribes in gallows for days. He poured hot lead on the heads of men til their eyes popped out and delivered the eyes to the king. The children in those southern villages were always warned, Be careful, the Butcher will get you.
I was not entirely surprised, of course, but that didn’t stop me from being even more careful. At night I learned to see the helmet as a good thing, protection from tactics that were certainly in Mother the Big’s blood, in something like past-life muscle memory perhaps, the hot mallet suddenly seeming like nothing. Sometimes I’d wake up with a start convinced there was a burning at the back of my head, certain my eyes felt just a bit loose, and I’d look over and see the rise and fall of Mother the Big in rest, and I’d realize I was intact, at least for now.
But how could it be possible anyway that a single person could have no good features, like a scary Halloween mask, all entirely menace? I used to try to mentally argue for the things she did do that were good. I first thought of the meals, but I grew to dread them more and more. Soon I was dipping into her jar of laundry money for cafeteria food, which meant her packed lunches were getting tossed and sometimes even with a complete lack of remorse, O-Madarbozorg-forgive-me.
There was, of course, what came after dinner: the telling of stories.
Unlike my stories that were filled with cartoon animals and greeting-card morals, hers were just memories of Iran really, all true and almost cinematic in their realness. The more the American landscape became my reality, the more she seemed to flood me with the other stories, like documentaries of a foreign land that she was trying to program into my head, before it was too late.
One time she did include an animal, a sheep she called Sepideh, an old pet of hers. Have you ever known boredom to be soothing? For me, boredom was the greatest gift, her boring stories treasured for being interruptions in our hard life together—what bad could ever come of things that didn’t exist? And so as it often went, Sepideh’s tale was long and flat and I drifted in and out as she rattled away about how Sepideh mewed not unlike a cat and Sepideh cried not unlike a child and I thought about all my homework and why I could not get a B in Language Arts, if only I could get a B in Language Arts and she was the best friend of your father who had no friends in the world but his sisters and why was it so important to Ms. Norman that we run those eight laps around the ring and how on earth did she know when we did just seven but when you live off the land like we did, really live off it in a way you can’t imagine, there are sacrifices though he was too young to understand and what would happen if I suddenly told the teacher I overnight lost my grasp of English, please could I get allowances like the ESL kids, could I be forgiven for being slow on tests and allowed to linger between classes, when suddenly Do you hear me? If you’re not going to take notes you have to listen—this is a man’s job, what I’m telling you here and I was snapped by back by a certain harshness in her voice that told me that this was going somewhere very much else: First you kill the lamb by restraining it and then cutting into its neck with a special knife made for such things (that you have probably never seen) and then you cut through to take off the head and legs and then drain out the blood by hanging them upside down in a bucket and then you leave them to soak in cold water overnight and then the next day you take the head and legs with all the guts and veins still in them and put them in a pot of boiling water and boil it until all the wool comes off and if the wool doesn’t all come off you burn the rest of the fur over a fire and then have a new boiling pot ready for putting in the meat you clean and while it’s all cooking, you add two large onions and four cloves garlic and turmeric and salt and pepper and then you cut the other parts of the body to eat later—you waste nothing—and once the head and legs are done (this is many hours, eight hours at least) you cut out tongue, eyes, and brain and serve them separately or add as a topping to the strew with a bit of lemon and vinegar. Serve with bread and that’s the end of that.
I dared only blink after that story. It seemed too dangerous for an audible breath even. I had only one thought in my head.
She nodded at me, as if reading my mind. This is the food that made me. One day.
He always killed women and children first, the Butcher.
Sometimes the madness would break me.
One day, Mother the Big woke me up with a hard couple knocks on my helmet and said, Look what Moe bought me. I slowly pried my eyes open and saw she was waving a tube of something that looked like toothpaste. Dumb boy, don’t you know what this is?
I read the label. Superglue, I said out loud.
She told me it was a miracle glue, the world’s strongest glue. It could glue any two things in the world together and they would be one forever.
I wanted to go back to sleep so badly, but she pulled me out of bed, and handed me a tube, letting me know Moe bought two for us. Her instructions were simple: superglue everything in the house to its foundation—books to bookshelves, lamps to tables, etc. The only exceptions were foods and toilet paper and objects too big to lift.
I dared ask. Why?
She looked so triumphant. Of course why. Because it’s coming, the big earthquake, I can feel it.
I helped her glue things and in my head I prayed—and not in the way you would have it, O Madarbozorg-how-sorry-I-am-today—but prayed terribly, prayed acidically and prayed most jaggedly, for all the bad in the world, all of it and then It too, for It to come and knock us both off the planet to orbit in space, a nothing-place where no one belonged to no where, where she could still be in my vision but couldn’t actually get me, where the care we were supposed to take of each other could happen at something greater than a god’s arm’s length, oh grandmotherfucker! As I glued, I realized I was badly breaking down but, like Americans put it, I was breaking in the manner of a tree that falls in the woods that no one witnesses but with a slight twist: one person did witness the tree here falling, saw everything and took it all in, and still she insisted there was no falling, and maybe no tree even.
I thought it would be the other way around but as I grew older I thought it may not be so—that the earthquakes she could maybe control, but the American women, perhaps not. Suddenly I had a vision of something else, the thing that would save me, a dream of dreams. I dreamt of another her, the only her, this girl who would be mine. In my dreams she had hair as yellow as Scooby’s Daphne and eyes as blue as the Frosted Flakes box. And freckles, like all American girls, and thin, maybe with braces. In my dreams, we’d be holding hands as we floated in revolutions among fog and neon lights, to the tune of pop songs. The third time I dreamt this, I realized we were roller-skating, something I had never done of course, but something I suspected would be a delight to master, a perfect pastime for me and my dream girl.
Where was this girl? She was everywhere, in every since class of mine from elementary to junior high to high school; she was the mother of other students, the girlfriend, the sales clerk, the actress on TV—
She was, I knew, Mother the Big’s greatest fear in the world for me. I knew and yet—
—she was the pageant queen and the murder victim and the milk-carton-missing and the punk rocker and a cartoon of an early settler in the history book; she was dancing alone to Madonna in her bedroom; she was in a skirt, with one leg up a tree, tying her shoelaces; she was laughing so hard milk was coming out of her nose at lunch; she was buried behind shopping bags at the mall; she was the first girl who called me sandnigger with a flick of her shimmering-pink-nail-polished middle finger. . .
And yet!: why would I—I—have ever looked for her? I was invisible here. I was the weird kid, so odd that I did not register. I watched girls giggle about boys and pass notes over and over and over my desk; I saw couples form like magic at all the afterschool dances I never went to but lingered to watch before the dreary walk home; one lunch break, I even saw two of my classmates kiss just like movie stars. It was all around me, but the rules were clear—it was not for me, fake-Michael, that Michael of all the hidden syllables and sounds of my other life.
But with time, it seemed, I was wrong about that too, like many things out here. By the time I got to high school, one day a girl who had been in many of my classes for years, a girl named Amy, slipped a note between classes. She did it with a strange sort of (beautifully brace-faced) smile and ran off quickly afterwards. I opened it up, the note folded in an origami bird of some sort, and read the pink-penned cursive that I could have sworn left a smell of berries.
It said, Michael you are so great this is so weird I know whatever but I like you just thought I’d let you know see your around Amy. Under her name she had made a happy-face sign.
I did what they called “died,” over and over, as I reread that somehow real note. Here she was, and not just any girl, but a girl with golden hair and blue eyes (I was pretty sure they were blue) and freckles and braces. My American dream girl liked me.
Amy became my girlfriend after a matter of weeks, in which we secretly held hands in between classes and started sitting next to each other more and more until everyone knew. Soon we were “going around.” And for the first time, Madarbozorg-forgive-me, I was not alone.
Are your parents strict? she wondered one day when I clumsily dodged her movie invite.
My guardian—my grandmother, I corrected, explaining the scenario.
Is she strict? she asked again.
I shrugged, not because I didn’t know if she was, not because the word didn’t do it justice. You could say I shrugged as an expression of subject-changing and she complied and this happened over and over again: I was somewhere else, always somewhere else to be at that point, maybe somewhere along the axis to whatever planet my distant parents parented from. I imagined over all the hard questions about the who and what and how of me, commercial breaks would insert themselves, carrying on about the selling of something with a cheerful mindless jingle—or perhaps, best of all, just the Lego colors and relentless drone of the Emergency Broadcasting System and its this-is-only-a-test promise.
When it came time for her to come home with me, she was snuck, of course—that, we always knew, was how the story would go. In our TV shows you always saw kids sneaking in through each other’s windows, of course. But, since some basic testing revealed that the windows were too high and the screens too loud to pop, and because those days Mother the Big went to sleep quite early, we took an even simpler route. It was ingenious, we thought, for its boneheaded simplicity: Amy would come to the door at an hour late enough for Mother the Big to be sleeping and I would simply let her in. Mother the Big was by then used to me getting up in the night, wandering, often sneaking to the living room to watch TV.
A risk, but a risk worth taking, we loosely calculated.
(And who knows, maybe I felt there was nothing to do but to get caught to rid myself of you, O forgive-me-Madarbozorg.)
By that point Amy and I had done it all: tried beer (I liked the buzz and pretended to love the taste and she loved it all, or maybe she was pretending too) and shared a cigarette (all we did was cough through it, both hating it). Our lips had even met one day at lunch period when she pulled me into a girl’s bathroom stall—a perfect first kiss, as the fear of being caught in the girl’s stall eclipsed the more rational lifetime fear I had of kissing a girl and of all girls, this girl, my dream girl! I went with it, this dream life and all its twists.
For the first half of that sleepover night at least, we were in top form; we behaved like experts. Tiptoes that were almost levitation they were so light, whispers that were just a wisp more substantial than mouthed words, and then all the things that did not require a sound: nudges and brushes and nuzzles and bites and embraces and kisses. How we did not worry about Amy’s exit or how it would end or anything involving all that everything being over, I do not know—we just stayed in every one of those precious moments like they were bonus frames added to the movie of our lives, and we just took and it gave and we took and it gave, and the world suspended itself for us, dream lovers drunk on the rhythm of our luck.
But maybe, O Madarbozorg, that’s precisely the tragedy: the folly of teenagers. Maybe you knew this, maybe even in your sleep you sensed it. Many stories in Persian legend speak of heroes that fall only when they get too comfortable with things and maybe that was it, because suddenly you entered my thoughts and I resented that intrusion even for a second, O Madarbozorg-certainly-you’d-be-unable-to-forgive me, and I began cursing you like I never cursed you before in my head, over and over, I said it all, nothing unsaid, and I said it all and added some even to that, and I said it all and took the whole universe down with it all—
Or maybe you did. O Madarbozorg, why didn’t I know just how big, just how larger than life you were then, when all around us the world began to tremble into itself, with a rattling the likes of which I had never heard, and then a rumbling, the sensation of every inch of foundation on this very earth shuddering, so awfully alive the whole miserable universe felt.
And we grabbed our clothes and put them half-on and ducked under the table as they’d too many times drilled us in school and we wordlessly watched the spectacle of some sort of undoing. All I remember is that at first I prayed—to my parents, to comic book gods, to the inventor of superglue (indeed as much as we shook, only the biggest objects teetered since everything else was superglued in place). And how we shook and how we shook even more when suddenly your wail, followed by your person, helmet in place, missiled towards us.
And that was when the one bookshelf in the living room, perfectly in tact with its books all superglued in place, collapsed right on top of Mother the Big as if it were a mugger managing the perfect topple upon its choice bystander. It took her over and she disappeared almost silently, though it was hard to make out one sound from another between Amy’s cries, my whimpers, the gasps and stammers of everything rattling in its place.
When the shaking stopped, Amy and I went over to the bookshelf and propped it up to uncover what we believed was going to be terrible underneath.
But there was no blood, no guts, no nothing. Just a groaning, dusty, scratched Mother the Big getting up on her feet. For a second her eyes looked lunatically confused, like an animal plucked from the wild and dropped amidst city streets. But then her look went to its ugly-normal. Next time, we glue even the big things to the ground, she growled straight at me.
As if on cue, the earth began shaking again and again we were under the table, this time all three. It fiercely shook and timidly shook and stopped and then reluctantly shook and defiantly shook and in one of these brief stops she pointed at Amy and turned to me and said, What is this? I will tell you what it is. It’s what’s caused the world to end on us. . . I was amazed it had taken her so long to say just even that and then I was less amazed at what followed: the curses that matched and then topped mine, her hands making clawing at the trembling air at us.
Amy, frightened by it all, began to cry and I held her—not just to comfort her, but to hold her away from Mother the Big. Finally when the shaking stopped she whispered a single question, what had my grandmother said about it, all of it—stupid girl, she wanted to be spared nothing.
Maybe that was the beginning of a sort of end for us, I don’t know, but I gave into exhaustion and just blurted the truth: She said she wished she had actually died instead of witnessing that girl—you know, you, but at least that was where I stopped, the least offensive of everything she had said.
Amy nodded and cried again and I hurried her out to rush home, where her parents were no doubt also angry on top of worried. At the door, her bloodshot eyes looked hard into my bloodshot eyes, and finally she uttered, How did that not kill her? Not even hurt her?
I shrugged it off, but I was thinking the same thing. Still I was surprised at the calm I felt—everything bad that could have happened did, it was all over—until I worried it was just the incubation period for all the worries to turn into one much bigger worry.
I’ll never forget the slowness and care with which I closed the door on my dream girl, to prolong the second before I had to turn and meet my eyes with the eyes of my nightmare woman, my maker’s maker, that unfathomably big Mother the Big. But I wasn’t sure what she could have in store that was worse than what had come to be anyway: everything she feared for me slowly coming true.
Nothing had changed; everything was changing. It all seemed to revolve around a main problem: the thought, that very thought we did not know what to do with, that she was not supposed to have lived through that. But what surprised me the most was that Mother the Big must have shared this thought with us. For the next weeks, just as aftershocks checked in here and there like clingy reminders of where we’d been and how far we still had to go, her behavior seemed frozen in that one moment.
It was harder to watch than I would have imagined, this phase in which Mother the Big repeatedly tried to kill herself.
I don’t know what she was thinking. Were we her theater audience? Did she see us seeing it all? Did she care? Maybe she was too busy surviving kitchen knives slicing at her wrist only to produce no blood; vomiting the laundry detergent that did little more than cause a burp marathon; outliving the noose that refused to tighten, left like a necklace around her neck as she did housechores. And what did she think we were thinking? If Mother the Big had been anywhere as invested as I had imagined in wanting to terrify us to submission, this would have been the ultimate. But in this phase she just seemed dazed, resigning herself to it perhaps, the bad we had all brought on ourselves.
We all felt a silent we in it all, for once.
Amy, maybe starting to crack from guilt, decided Mother the Big had been a ghost from day one. It’s the only logical thing, she’d say again and again, It’s the only thing that’s somewhat human sounding. I mean, we have a reference point for that. Whoever heard of someone being indestructible?
It happens in comic books, I’d retort.
And they’re not real, she’d snap.
Just saying—that’s a reference point.
It was hard to know which was worse—going through it or being witness to it. But Amy and I were definitely having trouble surviving it. She started coming around less and less, which honestly relieved me.
And yet being alone with you, O Madarbozorg, how it chilled me. Maybe the worst element of all was the mere visual spectacle, so impossible to forget. One day, after a panic attack brought on by seeing her gouge screwdrivers into her eyeballs to no result, I finally got the courage to tell Moe. Moe, there is something I have to tell you that you can’t tell anyone. It’s very important.
Anything, lips sealed. He sounded so casual.
I wondered if he could be trusted and decided probably not entirely. I’ll tell you this thing in exchange for something. So my secret for one of yours, okay? It seemed like a proper tough guy transaction.
Moe had chuckled. When I told him the chuckling stopped.
Are you okay, Michael? he said over and over.
I am okay, I told him. I’m the one who is okay.
I’m coming over, he said. We’re in a car now nearby, we’ll be right over.
Your secret, please, I demanded, the sibilance a snake’s hiss.
Moe sighed. I’m coming over with my boyfriend. Good enough?
I pocketed the revelation without a further thought. Normally, that idea would have been like a cartoon cliff drop, a dead-in-my-tracks halfway-off-the-mountain sort of deal. But in the context of everything it barely hit me.
I went to find Mother the Big by the window, flicker of something in her eyes, no doubt conjuring another suicidal scheme as was her pastime those days.
Madarbozorg, I said in that tone of voice I had begun talking to her in, the tone of a good Iranian grandson, I hoped. And then I said the craziest thing of all: Everything will be all right.
Her look went from daze to suspicion, the most she had for me those weeks, it seemed.
I scanned the outside with her silently. Never had the idea of Moe been so relieving.
Mother the Big’s eyes narrowed. If you’re looking for the girl to come here, I will burn this whole place down.
I’m not, I said, and made a mental note to make sure Amy never came again. It’s just Moe who is coming over.
That did it: her eyes flickered, candle in a dust-storm. Possessed, she rushed to the door and stood in the driveway and then in the middle of the street. I tried to call her back in, figuring out what she was up to, but soon I was out and taking in yet another hideous action scene: Mother the Big charging the maroon Chevy of a car with Moe in the passenger seat.
The driver, Moe’s boyfriend—all I registered then was a big blonde man—turned off the engine and ran out yelling. Moe calmly gave me a pat on the back hello and then we both kneeled down, trying to pull out Mother the Big’s body from halfway underneath the car.
See what I mean? I said to Moe.
Mother the Big was out and standing soon enough. She coughed a few times, straightened her dress which was lined with tiretracks, and went inside, cursing under her breath.
The minute she was out of sight I collapsed into Moe’s arms and cried and cried; his boyfriend, also crying and crying, completed the sandwich, our sad weeping man sandwich, while we all imagined the eyes of her on us: all disapproval, all disdain, all divine wrath.
We talked for hours and hours that night at Moe’s house about how to get rid of her. Report her? Imprison her? Institutionalize her? But a person incapable of death was basically god, who were we kidding.
While we thought of ways to get rid of her, apparently she was trying to think of ways to rid herself of us, though not in the ways we imagined. When we got back there, she was gone, her stuff and her one rolling suitcase from Iran. Just simply, like a normal runaway human, gone.
We weren’t sure what it meant—living on the streets? Excursion to other undead folk? But we were relieved we had over-and-underestimated her. The whole time we wanted her gone, why did we imagine she’d want anything else herself?
For too many months to count everything was as it should have been: Amy and I in each other’s lives constantly, McDonald’s and sleepovers, beer and a few more tries at cigarettes, and eventually the thing that comes past that American proverbial third-base, should O-Madarbozorg-disapprove-of-a-more-descriptive-word. Amy and I were alone, so blissfully alone to enjoy each other, that we even began joke-calling each other husband and wife.
One night, we drank too much and I began going on with my stories—did you know the tiger was in love with the little pig, oh yes he was, and without the rabbit, the tiger could cause a ruckus to entertain he pig and the pig, afraid of everything but him in the world, cheered him on and on—and suddenly Amy got serious and asked about the future.
What will happen? She wondered. We’re not kids. I don’t even know what I want to be.
I laughed, inappropriately. Just stick with me! I know it all! I’m going to be a star!
Sometimes, when drunk especially, I entertained notions of becoming the first big Middle Eastern entertainer, bigger than Nouri, Jackson, any Michael out there.
The conversation was full of these twists and turns—Amy’s anxiety and my deflection of it with jokes and nonsense and lofty declarations and stumbles back into story. At some point we must have passed out. When I woke it was barely dawn, the world the very pure fragile blue of liquid-ballpoint-blue-pen-scribble-scapes, light shy in breaking through, the day clinging to night. I looked at her, in her own dreams then, still my dream girl, and I thought everything was perfect. And then when bits of the night before came to me like torn scraps of notebook paper scattering in the wind, I knew what to do.
We were not kids. We were teenagers, older teenagers. Once young for my age, I was now too old. We had been through things now. We were all potential and future and finally we were just about allowed to choose it all ourselves. We were on the cusp of all that everything.
And so I woke her up with a kiss and watched her eyes flutter open and close and open like a baby farm animal resisting the crass fluorescence of the real world. And I said to her immediately, I know what will happen, wife. Just that: you will be my wife.
And she blinked at me some more, this time very much awake.
And I rephrased: What I mean is, will you be my wife?
And when we kissed it was a kiss unlike any kiss we had committed at that point—forget our setting, that teenage den of pizza boxes and video store rentals and sleeping bags and dirty clothes—it was the kiss of hotel lobbies and skyscraper rooftops, the kiss of movie stars, of grown beautiful people on top of the world, a kiss meant to be watched by millions with tissues in their hands, a kiss made for standing ovations and awards, the kiss before the credits, the kiss before the cut, the kiss just as the sun rose behind us and announced this is the beginning of your life.
In that moment as they—storytellers or sages or cliché-makers or some combination–always said, all my troubles indeed seemed far and my worries indeed went amelt. Even the worry behind all my worries, that worry that would not let go of me, was gone. For that moment.
And just that moment. Because when she pulled away from me, blinking more quickly, as if suddenly everything was different, I knew it was true and everything had changed, more than I had anticipated even. Something else was happening and I found myself blinking too, the room suddenly white with a blinding brightness, daylight screaming at us, an angry imposing sun absorbing and claiming all the potential we had in that moment.
In my head I heard the voice of a woman hiss to a man, This will not end well.
Out loud I heard a voice I knew too well, O worry of worry, O Madarbozorg-in-the-flesh-forgive-me: What did I tell you? They will bring you and your family more bad luck than you can imagine.
She was back, but was she ever gone? I had nothing in me but a wave: I waved hello; I waved goodbye.
At first we spent every spare hour of school trying to conspire. But how could we do anything? We were wasting away. I watched Amy grow thinner by the day—her blonde and her blue all somehow looking more gray. I was also thinning, finding little interest in burgers and pizza and beer and all the precious few illicits that had become fixtures in our American life.
I began dreaming of Iran more and more, and thinking of Amy and America less and less.
I had declarations, like mantras: We’re stuck with her. I had resolutions, like resignations: That’s what we get.
Then one day we walked together to my home and opened the door to an apartment full of helmets. The entire living room was like a bombed bowling alley with helmet of all shapes and sizes, at least several dozen, clustered in various chaotic displays. Mother the Big was sitting by the TV, watching a game show in her own new helmet, a Halloween Viking one with horns and braids, that would have looked comical was it not so frightening on her.
Amy and I gasped—she of plain horror, I guessed; me of horror and logistics: how did she manage to conjure all those helmets?
Don’t be afraid, Americangirl—she looked at her, but said to me in Farsi—from now on everyone who sleeps in this house sleeps in helmets. I feel another one coming! But this time we will be prepared!
My translation came out in rasps and croaks. Amy lost it suddenly. She turned to her and said in English she must have known she couldn’t understand, Why won’t you—and I knew what Amy was going to say, three reckless words no one I could ever love would dare utter, of course—leave us alone?
Mother the Big began laughing in a way I had never heard, high-pitched cackles, long and sharp and manic and almost extraterrestrial in its resonance. Americangirl, of course, had really done it now.
And somehow she had understood. Tell her I’m not going anywhere. I’m quite happy here in hell, Michael.
It was the first time she had called me by my chosen name. I nodded and told Amy.
Amy went over to a plastic chair, gently removed the two helmets that were claiming that space, and sat and wept silently—I knew the expression well—as Mother the Big went on to speak of how for weeks and weeks on end she had walked, hoping to drain her own battery, of course, but no exhaustion had come, just more and more and more hunger. I’m now so very hungry I’m making a dinner of dinners to welcome me home.
My Americangirl—sometimes those days Americangirl to me too, I had to confess—excused herself to the bathroom and stayed there for a very long time. Soon I was going to lose her, that I knew; she was losable unlike that forever woman, maker of makers, Mother the Big.
But for that night, we were together. We politely picked out our helmets and sat at the dinner table in them, looking glumly at the settings. She tended to the very strong-smelling pot of something, humming a particularly somber Persian dirge as she stirred, the Viking helmet making her look all the more mad. Amy and I would sneak looks at each other, looks that for me at least were not meant to project anything really.
I tried to escape to other places like Trigonometry homework and the SATs and how little was left of it all and yet could my credits transfer in Iran—but inevitably my eyes rested on that Viking dome of horns and braids and the spirit underneath it stirring furiously. The pot was not unlike a cauldron, all of it a sort of Halloween confusion. Amy’s eyes just rested shut in the waiting, which made me felt like I needed to open mine up all the more—we were still connected but like a rope and its two ends, in opposite directions, freed of potential, no forced ties—and I watched the thing boil and boil and let out a stench that went from odd to otherworldly, only understanding her fervor when for a second I got a flash of what was to come, what deserved to come, I suppose, our last meal together as three: the eye of a long-gone animal—some being’s beloved, some being’s sacrifice—rolling helplessly in the cradle of its own limb.
Reprinted from Immigrant Voices: 21st Century Stories